Microsoft is following in the wake of Google and Facebook and investing in newsrooms in El Paso and Juárez to help protect local journalism. The borderland is one of the first four communities nationwide that the technology giant has selected to participate in its pilot program.
Area news organizations, including El Paso Inc., have been meeting with Microsoft virtually, explaining our needs and challenges as the company explores the best ways to boost local journalism. Microsoft has taken a different approach than Google or Facebook, which provided much-needed emergency relief grants to three El Paso newsrooms, including ours. Its approach is more hands-on.
It’s good news for news, especially at a time when most news about the industry has been bad news. It’s also good news for the El Paso region as a whole.
“Healthy democracies require healthy journalism, and we hope our initiative can play a role in helping to support quality journalism locally and nationally, as well as promote trust in news,” Mary Snapp, vice president of strategic initiatives at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post announcing the pilot program.
The plight of newspapers, an industry that has been part of American life since before America was America, is well known at this point. Still, whenever I see numbers showing the extent of the bloodbath, it shocks me.
Newsroom employment has shrunk by half since 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. As the cuts continued even as the U.S. economy boomed last year, I sometimes wondered what was going to happen when the next recession hit. Now we know. In the first six months of this year, more than 11,000 newsroom jobs were lost, according to Axios. The result is thinner coverage and eroded quality.
El Paso hasn’t been spared the cost-cutting, and for years the number of full-time reporters covering this region of 2.5 million people has been shrinking. And across the border in Juárez, journalists face additional challenges, including threats and violence.
I admit that those of us who work in news tend to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and we could use more humility (a lot more?). But journalism is important to democracy, and fewer full-time reporters means El Pasoans have less information about what’s happening close to them, voters aren’t as well informed about candidates and that city and county government and school boards are significantly under covered.
Quality journalism also has a role to play in the development of the region. There have long been many misconceptions about the borderland, and it has long been overlooked by those in Austin, Washington, D.C., and other power centers. Local journalism is an important way El Paso presents itself to the rest of the country and the true realities of living on the border.
Through the pilot program, Microsoft is providing funding to the El Paso Community Foundation to support newsrooms and attract matching funding. It is providing tech support to newsrooms, which often operate with ancient software and hardware. It is also providing legal support and training in data journalism, including the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools.
The company is giving newsrooms the opportunity to promote content across its sprawling distribution network, which includes MSN, Bing, Microsoft Edge and Microsoft News apps.
Microsoft is under no illusion that it is going to fix journalism, but its attention to local news and a region that often gets overlooked is very welcome.
We don’t have all the answers,” Snapp stated, “but we are committed to listening and learning, and we hope our contributions and learnings will be useful to others.”